Route 86

It’s the middle-of-the-day tram. The Friday middle-of-the-day tram. The time when everybody really needs to get anywhere, or anybody really needs to get everywhere.
There’s a group of large, handsome white men by the door. They’re all wearing tan chinos and holding sunglasses. A girl with dark eyeliner and sad beagle eyes slides her wallet away, closes her bag and takes a seat at the back. We continue on our rickety, jerky way. I thought the boy with the luminescent skin and floppy dark hair was looking at me. He’s got those beautiful, deep brown eyes. He smiles a little when I swipe my card and the little beep of acceptance resounds. I have to reach my arm out a long way because one chino man, the blond, is in my way. After I’ve done it he sits down out of the way. A muttering man in jandals with matching matted hair and beard gets on. He and his odour of stale cheese, sweat and urine pace the tram. Finally, he settles beside the blond chino man and directs his mutters to him.

– Bourke Street … that’s where my missus lives

– She lives there

– She left me, my missus

– They took her.

– Bourke Street … that’s where my missus lives.

Blond chino guy frowns and leans in as though it’s his duty to understand. He seems nice. Muttering, rat-nest beard man gets off yelling back,

– Bourke Street

– You take care mate .. watch the cars mate!

Yells blond chino man. I realize something’s going on. The chino men stop their chatter. They congregate. One’s at one exit and two are at the other.

– Oh! You’re gonna get off. You don’t have to get off.

The chinos stand at the doors and signal to one another eyes alert like prairie dogs. They alight in unison.

They’ve cornered an old woman. Her red pleated skirt and long grey hair tied back with a ribbon seem lifeless. She’s fragile next to them, the tall chino inspectors.

Next, a baby-faced guy, penguin waddles on. He’s swimming in a huge white t-shirt with a gravy stain that says ‘bed-head.’ It makes me smile. He pulls it out, away from his skin, every so often. He’s wearing a red cap, baggy, saggy shorts and white socks with sandals. His shiny blue eyes are sparkly and far away. He paces up and down the tram and smiles to himself as though he’s about to giggle.

– I love my cat!

He suddenly bursts out with it, smiling even more.

That’s just the way there.

On the way back first it’s the young, pale couple, haggard wraiths. They appear on the other side of the tracks. She sits down in the tram shelter. He fidgets and paces and crosses directly in front of the approaching tram. My hand flies to my mouth. My heart skips a beat. It misses by a hair. He’s in a white t-shirt, bright pink shorts and jandals. He keeps pacing and scratching his legs. They are covered in a welty rash. I notice hers are too. She’s so skinny I can see the bones around her eye sockets and the black make-up around her eyes is smudged down to her cheeks. Her hands and head shake. Her eyes too.


The boy shrugs, paces, scratches. Her head shakes.


– You knew it was all we had! I can’t believe you left it there!

– I need those cigarettes!!

She wrings her hands and waves them about at him in frustrated chopping motions. He crosses again. They argue some more. She runs her hands through her hair, tearing it out.

They seem like such a cliché, a parody of young drug addicts that I keep thinking it can’t be real. That someone will come out soon and credit the performance to a new interactive theatre group performing soon somewhere in Fitzroy.

The second act gets on at the council flats in Collingwood. Three aboriginal men in caps, jandals and football shirts. They approach the tram spreading out and staggering. A little gang. Their dark skin is shiny with sweat.

– A bunch of arseholes!

A wave of acrid, alcohol or meth smell invades the tram. The Asian boy next to them visibly squirms. A couple quickly disembark.

– COME ON! Smile! You sad bastards!

Slurs one and just saves himself from falling as the tram lurches forward. They all talk at once, loudly, in a slurry monotone.

– Betcha they’d smile if I swung naked here.

One of them clings onto the side rail and giggles.

– Yeah, bro.

The one sitting down opposite frowns and hangs his head.

– Don’t cha get like that! What’ cha getting pissed off for?


The words lumber out of his mouth infiltrating the tram. The other makes his way to the door. Their yelling leaves and the tram still resounds with it for a moment. Again, it doesn’t seem real, just farcical. Finally, near home it’s the scruffy man with the transparent blue eyes.

– I saw you getting off the train in Preston yesterday.

He says to the clean-cut boy opposite him.

– Wasn’t me.

The boy looks away and I recognise the man from other days when he said the same thing to me. I wonder if he’d be satisfied if someone answered,

– Yes, so you did.


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About duendest (Tina Cartwright)

Tina Cartwright grew up on the East Coast in the South of New Zealand. She lives and works in Melbourne. Her children’s picture book, Kiwi and Scorpion, was published with Penguin NZ in 2008. She edited and translated Taking Latin America Home – a self-published anthology influenced by Latin America which raised funds for the Sweet Water Fund in Nicaragua.

2 responses to “Route 86”

  1. Tim A. says :

    I like the way you are a people watcher. We are all a strange lot.

  2. duendest says :

    Yep. Agreed. We are!

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